From a Sale, Lace Undergarments, Never Worn

My mother told me if I didn’t marry by 25, I would end up “on the shelf.” Still single at 36, I’m learning to appreciate the view.,

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At the top of my cupboard is a dusty box filled with colorful lace undergarments with red sale tags still attached. It sits among a collection of high quality pots and a stack of Tupperware.

My mother began collecting these items when I was 18 in preparation for my marriage. Once a year at the Woolworths’ sale in Durban, South Africa, where we live, she would wade into the chaos of the underwear section and dig through piles of frills to find matching sets that would go into the box on the top shelf.

Everyone I knew in my Indian Muslim community did this; one aunt had been collecting quality pots in her attic for her daughters since they were children, another stored old bottles for wedding table vases. A third kept kitchen appliances in her garage. Our houses were packed with the promise of marriage.

Excited, I started to add things to the shelf: a teacup set with a Chinese pattern, an expensive perfume for my future husband, a warm hat for his head in winter.

I had been waiting to fall in love since I was 12 and saw the Indian actors Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri Dixit in “Dil To Pagal Hai,” with him whispering for her to come closer and closer. I went home, my heart aflutter, and wrote with shaking hands in my diary: “I hope I fall in love like that.”

Love, however, did not come easily for me. One by one, my three older sisters found husbands, took their boxes and left. I met plenty of suitors through family but often felt resistant, even rebellious, about the whole process.

Some men were rude, saying things like, “Lucky I’m tall or our children would be short.” Others were interesting and even kind. But I felt no passion, and I would have only passionate love or nothing.

My parents grew increasingly worried. “You need to take this seriously,” my mother said. “No man will marry you after 25. You’ll end up on the shelf.”

Relatives urged me to not be fussy, to take what I could while I could. They gave me sacred verses to recite and asked holy men to check if anyone had cast the evil eye on me. At family functions, people said they were praying for me. (“Well,” I’d think, “you’re not praying hard enough.”) The pressure became so heavy that I began to consider a man I didn’t like but thought might make a good husband.

My father said, “If you put two people together long enough, they’ll eventually fall in love.”

I wondered if this was true until, while on a family holiday at a game reserve, I heard our guide tell us about a male and female cheetah who refused to interact despite being kept in the same enclosure for years.

And then, at 24, it happened: I met a man in graduate school who was worldly, confident and spoke boldly about social justice, and I felt drawn to everything about him. This was the feeling I had anticipated for so long, the crack of lightning.

I wrote him letters, baked for him and imagined a future in which I could take down the blue box, put out the tea set and place the warm hat on his head. But as years passed, he remained noncommittal. The man I tried to give my heart to did not seem to want it, until, eventually, he married someone else.

And suddenly I was 30 and alone.

This reality stunned me so much that for a long time I couldn’t leave the house. I was ashamed for holding so much hope. I tried to keep my dreams small after that; I only kept what could fit in my hands.

My parents were deeply disappointed but did not try to coerce me into marrying. They didn’t know what to do with me; I barely knew what to do with myself. The box on the shelf remained untouched. My mother had long stopped buying things to fill it. And love, the idea of it, the great flicker of it, dimmed.

My parents resigned themselves to a life with me at home. In my culture it is normal, if rare, for an unmarried woman to remain living with her parents. It would not be typical for someone like me to get an apartment or home of my own, despite the professional success I have found as a writer and the independence and sense of adventurism I have gained from having traveled internationally to conferences and residencies.

I am now 36, and this is not the life I expected. I thought I would be married and pushing children on swings in leafy parks. I thought I would know what it feels like to hold a lover’s hand as we walk down the street, or to wake up next to another body each day.

Instead, I find myself flinching if someone grabs me too suddenly or touches me casually; I hold myself close so as not to accidentally bump into strangers. I crave touch yet no longer know what to do with it.

Sometimes I am overcome with such desire to feel love and touch that I drop my pen and leave my desk and rush to my mother or father, whoever is nearest, and slip myself into their arms as tightly as possible and hold on until my need is assuaged.

From so much time together — especially during the pandemic, when we three have been our only company for so long — my parents and I have come to understand each other on a whole new level. We have changed so much; I am no longer the impulsive girl with all the questions, and they are no longer the strict parents with all the answers.

Before, my mother wiped me down with a wet cloth when I had fevers or rubbed my back when I was sick, but now, slowly, I’m turning into the caregiver. I check blood pressure and blood sugar and fill pill containers. When my father’s back hurts, I read up on kidney stones. When my mother falls, I check for a concussion.

When I was a child and my knees ached, my mother rubbed them and told me it was because I was growing older. Now when my mother’s knees ache, I rub them and tell her the same. Before, I would say, “My father can fix anything.” Now, when I find his misplaced glasses or keys, he says, “My daughter can find anything.”

Sometimes they draw me into their arguments, although I try not to take sides. When my father wanted to cut down my mother’s Moringa tree because the leaves collected in the pool, and she wanted to keep it, I told them to compromise, so they cut only the half that sat over the water. Sometimes I’m their WhatsApp adviser, fake-news exposer and meme explainer.

But mostly, I’m an observer, learning what it’s like to grow old with someone you love for nearly 50 years. My parents have become softer; they don’t lose their tempers or shout like before. When they do the crossword together, they argue when they cannot find the eraser and then spend the next 10 minutes laughing because one of them was sitting on it.

My father sings old Indian songs to my mother, helps her hang clothes on the line and files her heels. My mother cooks his favorite foods, cuts his hair and clips his toenails. Although there is routine to their relationship, they still surprise me. At 72, my father is trying to teach my mother how to swim. He holds her up by her belly and tells her to kick to stay afloat, and she shouts at him to stop rushing her.

And I have become a part of their story, of their marriage, of their love. We have our own language, unspoken looks only we understand. My mother shakes her head slightly if she doesn’t want me to rebuke my father for forgetting something, and my father and I have warning faces for one another if my mother is moody. They both listen in rapt attention as I tell them over supper about the book I’m reading.

It is not quite the love I was expecting, but I am learning that life is bigger than my expectations.

Recently my mother made cookies, and we ran out of containers to store them.

“I can get my Tupperware from the top shelf,” I said.

“No,” she said. “We’ll find something else.”

I did not insist. Because to use my Tupperware, to take down my box, would mean giving up on love, on a future with someone new, on a life that is even bigger than this one. And we are not yet ready to do that.

Shubnum Khan is a writer in Durban, South Africa. Her latest book is “How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo.”

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